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Michael Bay, Seriously

Critics spot an auterist signature amid the mayhem

Action auds adore him. Fussy cineastes revile him. Hardly anyone in either camp puts much thought into assessing his work.

But even some critics — who regard him warily and risk ridicule from their peers if they praise him — are coming to admit that, love him or hate him, Michael Bay needs to be taken seriously. 

“He’s an auteur through and through,” says Scott Foundas, contributing editor for the highbrow Film Comment magazine. “You know within a few seconds of watching his movie that it’s a Michael Bay movie and beyond that there’s no question that he’s influenced the visual language of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster in a major way.”

Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge calls Bay “a singular voice” and notes that of a generation of filmmakers who came out of commercials and music videos, “He is the one that has risen to the top of the pack and really continued to pioneer that esthetic on the bigscreen, for better or worse.”

And even Variety senior film critic Justin Chang, who generally abhors Bay’s style of cinematic mayhem, concedes, “I think that the critical revulsion that Michael Bay inspires actually is itself a kind of proof of his distinctiveness. There are a million hacks in Hollywood but there’s only one Michael Bay.”

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But why? How is Bay’s fast-cutting style different from that of, say, Paul Greengrass, and what is original about his tentpole bombast? Why is Bay himself successful and famous enough to appear as a Verizon FiOS pitchman when Simon West and Tony Scott could wait in a ticket line for “Transformers 3” unrecognized?

Jerry Bruckheimer, who launched Bay into features and produced his first five pictures, says, “Michael knows what audiences like, because he’s one of them.

“He has a strong sense of what makes a thrilling, entertaining movie and the talent to then take it several steps further. Just when the audience thinks they’ve seen it all, Michael gives them even more.”

And that, says Debruge, is one key to the Bay style: More is more. “He is there to over-deliver,” says Debruge. “If there’s a Michael Bay signature it’s that you know you’re going to get your money’s worth and then some. He delivers an insane amount of value to a spectacle-driven audience member.”

Debruge remembers seeing “The Rock” when he was 18. “It was everything I wanted from a movie and then 10% more. And I feel like that’s what he does. He’s the 110% guy.” Bay’s movies are longer than they need to be and overstuffed with, well, pretty much everything.

In that sense, Foundas puts Bay in line with a tradition of grand, if not always great, Hollywood filmmaking. “He is in a way the inheritor of the tradition of William Wyler and Cecil B. DeMille,” he says. “You don’t have biblical epics or sword-and-sandal movies anymore. So in a way the superhero movies and the comicbook movies are the modern day equivalent to that. I think Bay is very much working in that church.”

It may be sacrilege to put Bay in the same pew as the director of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” but it’s not so hard to draw a line from the chariot racers of “Ben-Hur” to the skydiving “birdmen” of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”

Like those Old Hollywood epics, Bay’s pictures are also “big screen” experiences. Seeing a “Transformers” movie or “Armageddon” on your iPhone seems to miss the point.

Debruge observes that isn’t just a matter of the scale of the pictures, though they’re so enormous they seem to burst at the seams even on Imax screens. “If you’re watching this movie on a DVD player by yourself at home you aren’t getting the full experience,” says Debruge. “In a movie theater it becomes a social thing. It’s a shared experience with all these other audience members, and there’s an energy in the room. There’s this vibe that runs through the movie. It’s not true of every summer movie, but it’s definitely something that Michael Bay specializes in. He’s an expert at it.”

CLASSICAL CHAOS

One element of Bay’s signature style is dizzying fast cutting. Steven Spielberg, who produced Bay’s “Transformers” trilogy, says: “He is so adroit at composition, blocking, camera movement, color and tone, that combined with battling Transformers in multiplanes of crazy action, you can either look at his imagery as assaultive, transformative, or deliriously entertaining.”

Movie critics tend to fall in the “assaultive,” camp, but Foundas again puts Bay in context of recognized auteurs. “There’s a lot of directors historically who like to move the camera a lot. They just tend to do it in one take instead of these short edits,” he says. “But maybe he’s kind of like Marcel Ophuls on methamphetamine.”

Chang, whose book “Filmcraft: Editing” comes out at year’s end, says veteran film editors (including Spielberg’s editor, Michael Kahn) talk about the logic of cutting, especially action, that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.

“This left jab here has to connect with this blow there. There’s a logic to it,” he says. “I don’t get that sense of logic from Bay’s films. In terms of editing, he’s not following that rule, that cleanliness and coherence that most editors value.”

But Debruge observes, “Michael Bay has recognized the energy of an action sequence can replace the logic of it. That can be done in a few ways. One is through sheer movement, the kinetics of the action sequence. Another is through cutting. I think what he does is a combination of the two.”

Debruge says watching an action scene staged by Michael Bay, but lensed in a comfortable medium shot, would deliver only a fraction of the experience Bay is filming for. “By getting in there and mixing up the angles, he creates the same sense of excitement and confusion through editing and camera placement that you would if you were actually in the fight.”

For Chang, the result is “there is almost a level of near-operatic abstraction to Michael Bay’s images when he is directing a really slam-bang, in-your-face action sequence. It almost becomes divorced from narrative, even. It’s spectacle truly for spectacle’s sake. Michael Bay taps into that little boy’s thrill of seeing stuff blow up better than anybody I can think of.”

It’s also notable what Bay destroys, at least in the Transformers movies. City streets, sure, but also world landmarks, the kind you’d study in school, and in “Transformers 2,” a college library — in other words, stuffy old stuff and books. Something in there surely appeals to the collective id of his young male audience.

Bay skeptics argue his fast-cutting style isn’t much different from that of the much more acclaimed Greengrass. But Foundas argues, “It’s not exactly the pseudo cinema verite, handheld style of the Bourne movies. (Bay’s) shots are more classical in that sense, but the way he puts them together is uniquely his own.”

CINEMATIC STYLE

The violence and kineticism of Bay’s pics has earned comparisons to vidgames, but Debruge rejects that comparison. “There’s something inherently cinematic about Michael Bay’s approach,” he says. Hallmarks of vidgame-influenced filmmaking, Debruge explains, include a subjective shooting style influenced by first-person-shooter gameplay; and a narrative that eschews traditional arcs and the three-act structure for something more akin to levels. Neither, he notes, is evident in Bay’s movies.

In fact, Bay’s compositions tend to be more in the vein of classical Hollywood filmmaking. In the same vein as Spielberg’s praise, James Cameron complimented Bay in a joint appearance on “the lucidity of the shot design that you create.” It’s just that those shots tend to go by so quickly that nobody has time to take them in.

Besides fast cutting, Debruge identifies two essentials of the Bay look. First, the surfaces in virtually every shot are burnished to perfection, as in a commercial, where the product being advertissed must look its best. Second, every moment is heightened, as if in a movie trailer.

“Trailers run 2 1/2 minutes and feature the best parts of the movie,” explains Debruge. “They’re the best shots, the best effects, the most thrilling moments, the zinger lines. If you look at a Michael Bay movie, you’re watching 2 1/2 hours of money shots and quotable tag lines. Every shot is designed to send tingles up your spine. When I watch a Michael Bay feature, I feel like I’m watching a full-length trailer. He manages to sustain that level of breathtaking awe for feature length — and then some.”

To be clear, Debruge doesn’t necessarily endorse this style, but he does say Bay has “a very strong singular vision that’s very visual in a way that I don’t think he necessarily gets enough credit for.” He argues that so many directors are assimilating influences from Bay, so quickly, that it’s hard to even identify those influences. He points to Brett Ratner, Bryan Singer and, to some degree, Christopher Nolan as filmmakers who have absorbed some of Bay’s language, though it’s never attributed to him.

Foundas, too, sees Bay’s influence spreading. “You see a lot of people who try to do what he does and I would say in many cases don’t do really as well as he does. I would say his is, although many people would be loathe to admit it, the standard that many people are trying to live up to.”

Jeff Sneider contributed to this report.

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